A matter of trust: #02
Updated: Sep 23
Twelve years ago, I graduated from Art school. I was a little older than the majority of my peers who were clearer about what they wanted to do with their lives. Nevertheless, that same year I found myself watching CBBC, the children's television wing of the BBC which, as you may know, caters primarily for children aged between 6 and 12. I was 28.
The show which took me there was Summerhill, a television drama written by Alison Hume and directed by Jon East, about a real school located in Leiston, Suffolk. What’s exceptional about Summerhill - and what I anticipate may be worth revisiting here – is that it introduces its audience (primarily children) to an actually-existing-institution where children are trusted to navigate their own intellectual and creative path.
Today, with the spread of COVID-19 crashing our economy and closing our schools I wonder if it’s also an opportunity to revisit the CBBC TV series, and the alternative education methods it presents, to ask: do we really need schools? and if so, what for?
Founded in 1921 by Scottish educator and author A.S. Neill, Summerhill operates on a philosophy of freedom (from adult coercion) where the children decide for themselves whether they go to lessons or not. What began as an experiment, explains Neil, “is now a demonstration school, for it demonstrates that freedom works.”
Watching the CBBC series Summerhill (and I recommend you do) is a bit like studying philosophy and child psychology via an episode of Byker Grove. Yet, Summerhill also introduces us to radical form of hands-on political education, where the children themselves hold collective control over the decisions which shape their domestic and educational environment. I’ll elaborate …
At the beginning of the series we are introduced to the school via the lens of two new pupils; Maddy, who had previously collapsed under the pressures of exams and her uptight parents, and Ryan, who has been expelled from previous schools for repeated disruptive behaviour. In both cases Summerhill is seen as a last resort rather a utopian ideal; “the kids are long haired weirdo’s” Ryan protests as he arrives at Summerhill for the first time.
Early in the first episode we witness Ryan stealing money from Maddy and the issue is brought forward at the pupil-led General School Meeting (GSM). Ryan is asked to respond to the accusation as other pupils gather evidence and propose motions for a resolution. Although teachers are present at the GSM, and do contribute, their input carries no-more weight than that of an individual pupil.
Watching the children of Summerhill self-govern, albeit in a TV drama, is remarkable. For all of the talk of democracy in our lives, from our politicians and within our news media, this scene demonstrates a very basic level of political participation that many of us will rarely encounter, if ever, in our day-to-day lives.
Inspired by the radical pedagogy of A.S. Neil, the parents of Canadian-American filmmaker Astra Taylor decided not to send their children to school. Alternatively, Astra and her siblings were ‘unschooled’ at home: “We had no textbooks, no class times, no schedules, no deadlines, no tests, no curricular. Instead our parents encouraged us to trust our abilities to cultivate our own unique, usually idiosyncratic, interests at our own pace … they (our parents) trusted our curiosity, which is our most basic human capacity.”
An ‘unschooled’ education, often referred to as ‘child-led learning’ allows for children to follow their own interests at their own pace, without direction from adults and with no set curriculum. This approach to education obviously has its sceptics. Many of whom may wonder how anything ever gets learned whilst asserting, however consciously or not, that in order to learn children need adults to tell them what to do.
Interestingly, also present at the General School Meeting (in Summerhill), where Ryan stood accused of stealing Maddy’s money, were a cohort of Ofsted inspectors, led by an uptight man resembling the Conservative cabinet minister Michael Gove. This element of the CBBC drama is based on actual events from 1999, when a notice of complaint was filed against Summerhill resulting in an independent schools' tribunal.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, the radical self-governing ethos and liberal approach to lesson attendance was at the centre of the dispute.
What the Ofsted quarrel, and our scepticism in general may ultimately boil down to is a question of authority. A question of whether we are willing to trust and encourage people, in this case young people, to think and to take charge of themselves, or not.
Ps. Ivor Cutler
I’d first heard of Summerhill the school via the Ivor Cutler documentary Looking for Truth with a Pin (2005), directed by Paul Spencer.
Before becoming well known as a poet, singer, and musician, the playful, eccentric and often poignant Cutler had once lived and taught at Summerhill. A former pupil of Cutler’s (from Fox Primary School in London, not Summerhill) reflects on his unconventional teaching style:
“He would split us into groups of five or six, and ask us to improvise various dramatic situations. One of them was Cowboys and Indians and the Red Cross, in which we would pretend to shoot and hack each other to death, before patching each other back together again. The teacher found this hilarious. Then he would ask each one of us to walk across the hall in a certain style: like a ballet dancer with a broken leg, or a drunken sailor with a blindfold on. We loved the class. It was enormous fun, an exhilarating release from the woes of multiplication tables and the like. It seemed unremarkable to us, however, because we were too young to realise that not every teacher was like Ivor Cutler.”